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The Waning Sword: Conversion Imagery and Celestial Myth in 'Beowulf'

The Waning Sword: Conversion Imagery and Celestial Myth in 'Beowulf' Edward Pettit
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This book’s strength is its wealth of [...] comparanda—interesting, worthy, often compelling analogues to the central monster-fight of Beowulf. They reveal the likelihood of an archaic mythic substrate embedded in the narrative tradition the poet inherited [...]. Pettit’s study is well worth the effort he has put into it, gathering in one place a compendium of the solar imagery that once appealed so strongly to the Beowulf poet [...].
Craig R. Davis, Speculum 96/2 (April 2021), 545-47.

The image of a giant sword melting stands at the structural and thematic heart of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf. This meticulously researched book investigates the nature and significance of this golden-hilted weapon and its likely relatives within Beowulf and beyond, drawing on the fields of Old English and Old Norse language and literature, liturgy, archaeology, astronomy, folklore and comparative mythology.

In Part I, Pettit explores the complex of connotations surrounding this image (from icicles to candles and crosses) by examining a range of medieval sources, and argues that the giant sword may function as a visual motif in which pre-Christian Germanic concepts and prominent Christian symbols coalesce.

In Part II, Pettit investigates the broader Germanic background to this image, especially in relation to the god Ing/Yngvi-Freyr, and explores the capacity of myths to recur and endure across time. Drawing on an eclectic range of narrative and linguistic evidence from Northern European texts, and on archaeological discoveries, Pettit suggests that the image of the giant sword, and the characters and events associated with it, may reflect an elemental struggle between the sun and the moon, articulated through an underlying myth about the theft and repossession of sunlight.

The Waning Sword: Conversion Imagery and Celestial Myth in 'Beowulf' is a welcome contribution to the overlapping fields of Beowulf-scholarship, Old Norse-Icelandic literature and Germanic philology. Not only does it present a wealth of new readings that shed light on the craft of the Beowulf-poet and inform our understanding of the poem’s major episodes and themes; it further highlights the merits of adopting an interdisciplinary approach alongside a comparative vantage point. As such, The Waning Sword will be compelling reading for Beowulf-scholars and for a wider audience of medievalists.

The Waning Sword: Conversion Imagery and Celestial Myth in 'Beowulf'
Edward Pettit | January 2020
562 pp. | 7 color illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783748273
ISBN Hardback: 9781783748280
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783748297
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783748303
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783748310
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783748327
Categories: BIC:DSBB (Literary studies: classical, early and medieval), D (Literature and literary studies), 2ABA (Anglo-Saxon); BISAC: LIT011000 (LITERARY CRITICISM / Medieval), FIC014020 ( FICTION / Historical / Medieval); OCLC Number: 1170169624.

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Signs and Abbreviations

1. Introduction: Beowulf, an Early Anglo-Saxon Epic Download
Edward Pettit

Part I. Ice, Candle and Cross: Images of the Giant Sword in Beowulf

2. The Giant Sword and the Ice Download
Edward Pettit

3. The Giant Sword and the Candle Download
Edward Pettit

4. The Giant Sword and the Cross Download
Edward Pettit

Part II. Sun-Swords and Moon-Monsters: On the Theft and Recovery of Sunlight in Beowulf and Other Early Northern Texts

5. Whose Sword Is It, Anyway? Download
Edward Pettit

6. Ing, Ingvi-Freyr and Hroðgar Download
Edward Pettit

7. Freyr, Skírnir and Gerðr Download
Edward Pettit

8. Lævateinn and the Maelstrom-Giantess Download
Edward Pettit

9. Freyr's Solar Power and the Purifying Sword Download
Edward Pettit

10. Freyr, Heorot and the Hunt for the Solar Stag Download
Edward Pettit

11. A Tale of Two Creatures: The Theft and Recovery of Sunlight in Riddle 29 Download
Edward Pettit

12. Another Tale of Two Creatures: The Loss and Recovery of the Solar Draught-Beast in Wið Dweorh Download
Edward Pettit

13. The Solar Antler in Sólarljóð Download
Edward Pettit

14. Grendel, His Mother, and Other Moon-Monsters Download
Edward Pettit

15. The Sun in the Pike Download
Edward Pettit

16. Conclusion: Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon Song of Ice and Fire Download
Edward Pettit

Supplementary Note
List of Illustrations

Edward Pettit studied Old and Middle English, Old Norse, Old Irish and medieval Latin at the University of London. His studies there culminated, at King’s College, in an edition of an Anglo-Saxon medical collection, the Lacnunga, for which he was awarded a PhD in Old English. He is currently working principally on what he hopes will be a one-volume edition and translation of the Old Norse mythological and legendary poems of the Poetic Edda. His main publications are:

‘Anglo-Saxon Charms in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Barlow 35’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 43 (1999), 33-46
‘Some Anglo-Saxon Charms’, in Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Related Themes in Memory of Lynne Grundy, ed. Jane Roberts and Janet Nelson (King’s College, London, 2000), 411-33
Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The ‘Lacnunga’, 2 vols. (Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, 2001)
‘Míach’s Healing of Núadu in Cath Maige Tuired’, Celtica 27 (2013), 158-71
‘Cú Chulainn’s Gae Bolga—from Harpoon to Stingray-Spear?’, Studia Hibernica 41 (2015), 9-48
‘Three Variations on the Theme of the Dog-Headed Spear in Medieval Irish: Celtchar’s lúin, Conall Cernach’s Derg Drúchtach, Lugaid’s flesc’, Studia Hibernica 42 (2016), 65-96
‘The Bristle of Balar’s Boar, Diarmaid’s Misstep and the Gae Bolga: Background and Analogues’, Studia Hibernica 44 (2018), 35-78

1. Introduction: Beowulf, an Early Anglo-Saxon Epic
Edward Pettit

The introduction begins by providing the historical and cultural context for the creation of the Beowulf epic. Pettit accepts the early eighth century dating of the poem, and goes on to suggest that it likely existed in Mercia as early as the sixth century. Pettit then introduces his central argument: a prominent theme of Beowulf is the conversion from Germanic paganism to Christianity and that it was intended to provide comfort for and smooth the progress of such a monumental cultural change. Potential historical associations with the epic poem are suggested, such as the Mercian monastery of Repton, as are historical parallels, such as the life of Repton monk Saint Guthlac. Pettit outlines an Anglo-Saxon society where Germanic paganism still lingers on in remnant forms, such as when responding to disease epidemics. This continuing transition from still-lingering paganism to Christianity is, according to Pettit, referenced by the melting, or waning, of what he has dubbed ‘the giant sword’, the salvaged weapon with which Beowulf defeats his foes after his own sword fails at the task.    

Part I. Ice, Candle and Cross: Images of the Giant Sword in Beowulf

2. The Giant Sword and the Ice
Edward Pettit

Chapter 2 initially surveys previous scholars’ comments on the poetic image of the waning sword of Beowulf, before Pettit challenges these interpretations as inadequate. He then looks at descriptions of swords in later Old Norse skaldic poetry, comparing them to the giant sword of Beowulf in terms of links to ice and icicles as well as their melting, ultimately finding many differences between their poetic images.

3. The Giant Sword and the Candle
Edward Pettit

Chapter 3 highlights the implicit likening of the melting giant sword of Beowulf to a burning wax candle and argues that it potentially has hitherto been overlooked. Pettit consults medieval Irish and Norse texts for mentions of ‘candle-swords’ but finds none that melt like Beowulf’s, though he does find a text, the ‘Saga of Hjálmþér and Ölvir’ that contains notable similarities to Beowulf, including the presence of potential equivalents to candle-swords. Pettit also suggests a Christian aspect to the giant sword, as symbol of the sun, a candle or even the Paschal Candle. Pettit however stresses that such a link is very subtle and that the technique looks more ‘allusively symbolic’ than ‘mechanically allegorical’.

4. The Giant Sword and the Cross
Edward Pettit

In Chapter 4 the author continues to investigate the symbolism of the giant sword, consulting a variety of extant Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian swords. Pettit suggests that the sword, both before its melting but especially after melting down to its golden hilt, could also link to the other principal symbol of Easter, the Cross of Christ. Pettit also considers the relevance of certain aspects of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, such as Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf and the battle-standard that he claims from the dragon’s hoard.

Part II. Sun-Swords and Moon-Monsters: On the Theft and Recovery of Sunlight in Beowulf and Other Early Northern Texts

5. Whose Sword Is It, Anyway?
Edward Pettit

Chapter 5 concerns the ownership of the giant sword. Pettit argues that the giant sword could have been the possession of a ‘righteous solar deity’ before Grendel stole it. If so the monser was likely motivated by a desire not only for self-protection but also for sunlight. Pettit likens this to the theft of the lightning-hammer of Þórr, the Norse thunder-god, before highlighting the recurrent theme of thievery in Beowulf. Pettit then concludes with comments on the basis for detecting Germanic myth in the poem, considering the likelihood that it was written in a pre-Viking conquest England.

6. Ing, Ingvi-Freyr and Hroðgar
Edward Pettit

Chapter 6 investigates the potential significance of two of Hroðgar’s grand titles. They indicate that his people were devotees of a pagan divinity named Ing, equatable to the Freyr of Norse mythology. Pettit tentatively suggests that Hroðgar was Ing’s human representative, or possibly even his incarnation. Pettit examines the Old English evidence for illumination on the god Ing, before considering evidence suggesting that Hroðgar may have given an ancestral sword of Ing to Beowulf, who subsequently wielded it as king of the Geats.

7. Freyr, Skírnir and Gerðr
Edward Pettit

Chapter 7 focuses on ‘Skírnir’s Journey’, an Old Norse Eddic poem about the quest undertaken by Skírnir, Freyr’s emissary, to win for his master a radiant giantess called Gerðr. Pettit argues that this poem contains a series of overlooked parallels to Beowulf’s final confrontation with Grendel and his mother. Pettit compares the texts, along with other Old Norse accounts, to suggest that these poems may preserve variants of the same underlying myth. Pettit highlights similarities between the two poems in the locations of these confrontations and the weapons of the respective heroes, as well as providing a possible equivalent to the giant sword, similarly jealously guarded by a monstrous female, analogous to Grendel’s mother. Finally, Pettit highlights a passage from a twelfth- or thirteenth- century English chronicle that details a Christian ritual with apparent pagan roots, linking it to the symbolism of the giant sword.

8. Lævateinn and the Maelstrom-Giantess
Edward Pettit

Chapter 8 concerns ‘The Lay of Svipdagr’, an obscure Old Norse poem that Pettit likens to both ‘Skírnir’s Journey’ and Beowulf. This poem contains a similar quest to claim a sun-like maiden, as well as a giantess apparently analogous to Grendel’s mother that likewise guards a weapon, this called Lævateinn. This weapon is protected in a similar manner to the giant sword, and consequently Pettit juxtaposes Lævateinn’s apparent origins—plucked, almost certainly illicitly, from a radiant branch of the world-tree by Loki—to those of the giant sword as another stolen solar weapon. Pettit concludes the chapter by citing comparable giantesses in other Old Norse sagas.

9. Freyr's Solar Power and the Purifying Sword
Edward Pettit

Chapter 9 describes the solar attributes of Freyr and the likely purifying function of Skírnir and his weaponry. Pettit advances parallels between Beowulf’s cleansing of Heorot with the giant sword and, following that sword’s melting, his purification of the mere and the implicit arrival of the thawing sun in springtime.

10. Freyr, Heorot and the Hunt for the Solar Stag
Edward Pettit

Chapter 10 continues to examine the mythology of Freyr by focussing on his connection with the stag. Freyr, having lost his sword, used an antler to slay a giant. Since he was shining when he did so, his antler may well have been solar. Comparably, Hroðgar is associated with the stag through his lordship of, and implicit identification with, his hall Heorot ‘Hart’, which shone in a manner suggestive of the sun. An identification of Hroðgar with a stag hunted by hounds and with an antler-hilted(?) sword—the giant sword—hidden in Grendel’s mere is implied by a punning passage describing a stag-hunt shortly before Beowulf enters the mere. Supporting these suggestions, Pettit adduces evidence for the concept of a solar stag more widely in early Europe, along with Old Norse myths about the hunting and devouring of the sun by wolfish lunar eclipse-monsters. Pettit argues that these may include an old female giantess and her son, a pitchfork-wielding wolf-troll, in the Eddic poem Vǫluspá ‘The Prophecy of the Seeress’, and the earliest surviving detailed depiction of Ragnarǫk, the Norse apocalypse, carved on the Viking Age Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, England. Pettit ends with traditions about the folkloric Man in the Moon, who, Pettit suggests, stole beams of sunlight.

11. A Tale of Two Creatures: The Theft and Recovery of Sunlight in Riddle 29
Edward Pettit

Chapter 11 continues the theme of moon-creatures as thieves of sunlight by analyzing an Old English riddle. Riddle 29 of the Exeter Book describes how a horned creature made off with sunlight and concealed this booty in its home, until another creature arrived on the scene and reclaimed its possession. Pettit identifies these as a crescent moon and the morning sun, arguing that they bear comparison to Grendel and Beowulf respectively.

12. Another Tale of Two Creatures: The Loss and Recovery of the Solar Draught-Beast in Wið Dweorh
Edward Pettit

Chapter 12 aims to provide further evidence for the treatment of this basic mythic theme in Old English poetry by venturing a related interpretation of the obscure metrical charm ‘Against a Dwarf’. Petitt argues that the incantatory section of this text describes the arrival of a sun-deity or solar emissary to reclaim a radiant draught-horse, which by night had taken the form of (or been possessed by) a lunar dwarf and concealed itself (or been hidden) inside the skull of a human, who consequently suffered a convulsive fever. The sun-god or a solar emissary harnessed this errant dwarf-horse, which may also have had a cervine aspect, to his chariot and then journeyed into the sky, perhaps over the cooling sea, with the result that the patient’s fever cooled. Again, the argument is bolstered by parallels in Old English and Old Norse literature. Especially noteworthy for the appreciation of Beowulf may be correspondences between the dwarf’s invasion and occupation of a human’s head and Grendel’s invasion and occupation of Heorot, which caused Hroðgar mental suffering.

13. The Solar Antler in Sólarljóð
Edward Pettit

Chapter 13 attempts to interpret two obscure stanzas concerning a buried, probably solar, antler in ‘The Song of the Sun’, an Old Norse poem which refers explicitly to a solar stag. Pettit endeavours to interpret them on two levels—Christian and heathen Germanic—and relate them to the mere-episode of Beowulf. The Christian interpretation sees the antler, which is recovered by God from a dwarf (probably), as a symbol of the Cross, or perhaps also of the souls of the righteous in Hell. From a Germanic perspective, Pettit suggests that these stanzas may represent another recreation of a heathen myth about a lunar creature’s illicit concealment of sunlight and its repossession by a sun-god or his emissaries. Pettit also draws links between the solar antler, the giant sword and the close relatives of the god Freyr.

14. Grendel, His Mother, and Other Moon-Monsters
Edward Pettit

Chapter 14 aims to demonstrate the widespread presence of lunar creatures in Germanic literatures, thereby supporting the likelihood that they may inhabit Beowulf too. Petitt gathers evidence to strengthen the suggestion that Grendel and his mother, as well as the poem’s climactic dragon, are, like analogous characters introduced earlier, creatures identified with the moon, especially during its waning or dark phase. Petitt levies evidence from a variety of differing texts to suggest the Old Norse revenant Glámr as an analogue of Grendel and various Old Norse lunar giantesses as comparable to his mother, as well as further general links between Grendel and his mother and traditions about the moon in world mythology. Petitt attaches the most importance to the direct comparisons he draws between Beowulf’s monsters and those of the Old Norse poem Vǫluspá.

15. The Sun in the Pike
Edward Pettit

Chapter 15 examines the Beowulf-poet’s description of Grendel’s mother as a ‘sword-greedy she-wolf’ of the sea. Pettit proposes that this characterization may identify her, if only fleetingly, as a wolfish fish, perhaps specifically a pike, with an appetite for swords of heavenly light. This idea finds parallel more or less closely in Finnish accounts of a pike’s swallowing of a spark of heavenly fire or of golden eggs from which the sun was formed; in Old Norse accounts of pike that swallowed, or trembled on, swords analogous to Beowulf’s giant sword; in a sun-devouring (and possibly solar-staff-swallowing) wolf-serpent on the Gosforth Cross; in ancient dragons such as the Babylonian Tiamat and Indian Vŗtra; and in the Christian identification of Hell as the mouth of a monstrous sea-creature.

16. Conclusion: Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon Song of Ice and Fire
Edward Pettit

Pettit’s conclusion reviews some of the key proposals of this study, which it supplements with fresh information and interpretation. Myths encapsulated in ‘Skírnir’s Journey’ and ‘The Lay of Svipdagr’ are further elucidated, the former especially by a new interpretation of the gambanteinn—a weapon Pettit thinks analogous to the giant sword—as essentially a ‘twig of tribute’. Petitt argues that this might be represented, beside solar and lunar symbols, on the pommel of a sword-hilt bearing decoration in Anglo-Saxon style from Bedale, North Yorkshire, England. The possible association of the giant sword with Ing and his circle is re-emphasized, with an explanation given of its relationship—and fundamental consubstantiality—with Hrunting as a solar symbol. Pettit ends by offering thoughts on the possible significance for an interpretation of Beowulf of the waning giant sword as a thought-provoking, inspiring symbol of transformative conversion.

Supplementary BibliographyDownload

Supplementary ObservationsDownload

Errata to The Waning SwordDownload